“Nothing is so painful to the human being as a great and sudden change.”
Everything you know is a lie.
In fact, every single pop culture reference you think of when Frankenstein comes to mind is probably false. It’s why I have trust issues. But more than that, it’s why you should read this book. Simple as that. The rest of this review details why I love this book. It also gives insight as to why this may be my favorite science fiction book of all time, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Frankenstein starts out as letters between this explorer obsessed with reaching the North Pole, Walter, and his sister, Margaret. The tone is bleak and mysterious. What awaits him through these brutal snowstorms? What will we find as we venture further into the white expanse? What enigma waits on the next horizon? Well, Victor Frankenstein does. Beaten and battered by more than just the wind, he finds solace on the marooned ship, and observes a new obsession in Walter: A yearning for someone to befriend. He becomes that companion, but not before warning him of the dangers of this emotion.
Thus the Frankenstein most everyone knows begins.
Victor Frankenstein grows up in the serene city of Geneva. Y’know, the place where those human rights was found. Or am I getting ahead of myself? Anyway, Victor’s tale starts off with his childhood in the Alps, of his study of alchemy, and of his cousin Elizabeth’s adoption. Then tragedy strikes. While taking care of the little girl, Victor’s mother dies by a disease. The whole family becomes distraught, but then a time jump occurs to ease the pain on our poor narrator.
We are then regaled by his venture to Ingolstadt to study chemistry. There he becomes a genius, when only weeks before he was mocked for reading into the alchemical scholars. But this brilliant mind takes on a much darker thought process as time goes on. Because of his mother’s death, he becomes obsessed with life. Victor holes up in his room, only escapes at night to steal corpses, and creates a monster through lightning. He does the impossible. He makes his own Adam.
Well, no. Not exactly. There is no grave robbing. There is no electricity. The creation scene lasts barely a paragraph, and then not a scant word is said to the monster. Instead, Victor realizes the error of his ways and runs away, hoping to never see the heinous creature again. And that fear permeates the remainder of the book; it hangs down upon Victor like an iron curtain, and ultimately leads to the downfall of his life.
“Learn from my miseries, and do not seek to increase your own.”
If anything, this book is miserable. The emotions are always sad, and there’s a growing melancholy after every page. The past is what Victor strives for, but in trying to keep the happiness in his head, his surroundings fall apart. Unfortunately, it’s when he does something and doesn’t mope that the worst comes to fruition.
And it’s beautiful.
There were twists that actually made me tear up, they were so moving. Out of the many books that deal with death, I think this one is the best I’ve read to date that perfectly encapsulates the true horror of entering the void. This idea is, at times, juxtaposed by the soothing thoughts of religion, and the finality of meeting your dead family members in Heaven, of finally finding peace, but only at the end of Shelley’s story.
This tells us that hope, while easily crushed, can become blinding when the unthinkable has been done to you.
If you’re lost by my vagueness, the short reply is that Victor is thrown through the ringer. He might warn Walter of the problems that obsession rears, but that doesn’t mean any shred of hope or bright light can save him.
“Nothing contributes so much to tranquilize the mind as a steady purpose.”
Which brings me to the big selling point for me: Themes. While the characters are well done and believable, and the writing glitters with flowing beauty (both of which I’ve found to be the case in most classics), the ideas are what makes this book a favorite of mine. As pointed out, obsession is a big one. Walter wants a friend. Victor doesn’t want death. The monster wants someone like himself. And near the end, Victor becomes obsessed with purpose and revenge. More than anything, Shelley tells us that obsession is wrong, in any form, whether it be big or small. It is, at the end of the day, self-destructive.
But more than this idea is the one of what happens when the creator doesn’t listen to his creation. More importantly, it shows when a creator cuts off all contact and love to his creation.
This is, at its heart, a story about God. It asks us what would happen if God turned His back on us. Because of this action, it’s easy to sympathize with the monster. A long backstory helps a bit, too. But just as quickly as our love is placed on the monster, the thing becomes one. Frankenstein then becomes a tale about losing our humanity. Question is, if both lose their humanity, who is God? It’s easy to proclaim that Victor is the divine being, seeing as he is the architect of this beast. But could it be that the monster is a god? The thing is much stronger than Victor, much smarter than Victor, and, overall, better. Some people contest that we have religion to blame a higher being on things that go wrong. We call ourselves the hero of our own tale; we justify our actions, sometimes to the point of saying that we are never wrong. We blame others for our shortcomings. Victor does this to the monster. In fact, we are afraid of gods. We are afraid of what can lord over us, of something we can never escape. Victor is scared to death of the monster. So, who then is the modern Prometheus?
“‘Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.’”
A bigger, and much more controversial, question to ask is: Is the monster even real? Nobody besides Victor Frankenstein ever actually sees the monster. And this presents the possibility of an unreliable narrator. Two scenes, one at the end, and one at the beginning, argue that this is completely ludicrous. But bare with me. In the first one, the entire crew sees the monster. But is it simply “something?” Something large and grotesque, in fact, but does it have to be the monster? Could it simply be Sasquatch living in the Arctic? Possibly.
The second scene is much easier to prove. This time, only one person sees the monster, and that can be thrown down under hallucinations and seeing what you want to see. Now, I do contest that this theory is held up by loose sticks, but it is a theory nonetheless. And I believe this uncertainty throughout is what makes the story so amazing.
See the ending is wrapped up, but we are given no definite answer. We are given a solution, but at the same time, we are not. The tale ends on ambiguity, on cold doubt, and I adored it. The back forth of Victor, the monster, and Walter add to this muddy water. Ideas flip at the drop of a hat, same way with scene shifts, but I was more tolerant of that niggle.
The only critique I can give, besides the slow pacing in the middle, is the repetition, namely from the wallowing misery and fixation, nay worship, of nature. But seeing as this is hailed as the King of Romanticist books, I can understand the problems. To an extent.
Simply put, if you want an extremely intelligent read with deep characterization and a plot that twists and turns better than the average thriller, then I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It’s a haunting and engrossing tale that shows no doubt in my mind that it should be a classic. While the repetition can become grating, the threads of obsession, power, greed, creation, life, and death have impacted me more than I can explain. There is no question that it will stay with me for years to come.
“Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be his world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.”